The return of rye whiskey, the drink of pre-prohibition USA

The whiskey of pre-Prohibition USA is back, thanks to a new generation of craft producers. Here's the lowdown on the hootch and three places to try it.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

What exactly is it?

Rye whiskey is bourbon’s boisterous older brother — tons of attitude, more intense and something of an acquired taste. Variations can be found all around the world — Canadian whiskey is often referred to generically as rye — but is at its heart a quintessentially American drink.

What’s its story?

It was the USA’s hooch of choice in the 19th century. Then Prohibition hit, and rye never recovered. It developed a reputation as bottom-shelf paint-thinner due to falling production standards, allowing bourbon to usurp its standing. It’s currently experiencing a bit of a revival, though, sneaking back into the limelight thanks to the emergence of several smart new brands.

How does it taste?

Rye whiskey is generally drier, spicier and arguably more complex than bourbon. Rye is a much trickier grain to work with than corn so a lot of distillers mix it with other grains. In order to be called straight rye whiskey, the mash blend needs to be at least 51% rye, and then typically blended with other grains such as corn, wheat or barley. Proportions aren’t a direct indicator of quality, as flavour profiles swing wildly regardless, but try a 100% rye for a true expression of the spirit — Kyrö Single Malt Rye Whisky is a good example, from Finland, of all places.

How do I drink it?

The good stuff can be sipped neat or with water. Rittenhouse, Knob Creek and Old Overholt are all widely available, while the New York Distilling Company’s Ragtime Rye is worth hunting down. In addition, almost any cocktail made with bourbon can be twisted with rye — both the old fashioned and Manhattan benefit from the dry, spicy punch. But arguably the most iconic rye cocktail is the sazerac (see box copy), first made with cognac until diminished supplies called for a rye substitution. It’s a simple but boozy concoction of rye, absinthe and bitters that tastes heavenly but hits hard.

Where to try it

The Vault at Milroy’s, London at Milroy’s, London
One of London’s oldest speakeasies, The Vault has an expansive list of American and Canadian ryes. 

The Sazerac Bar, New Orleans
Have the eponymous rye cocktail with a side of history at this bar in New Orleans’ Roosevelt Hotel.

Char No.5 Whisky Bar, Toronto
This bar in the lobby of the Toronto Delta Hotel stocks an impressive variety of local rye whiskeys.

Published in Issue 9 (summer 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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